Suits and Scuba

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After our first two weeks in Vietnam we were a little disappointed with the country. We had been really looking forward to visiting this region, famed for its amazing food, friendly people and picturesque coastline. Manna, who is probably the world’s number one fan of Vietnamese Pho soup, was particularly excited about Vietnam and had been dreaming of this trip for most of her adult life.

Yet, so far the people had been friendly only when trying to rip you off, the food was hit and miss, and the beauty was tainted by man-made pollution. But then we arrived in Hoi An and everything changed.

Hoi An by night

Hoi An is a beautiful, little seaside town halfway down the Vietnamese coast. It is famed for its many tailor shops, where you can buy extremely cheap but high-quality bespoke clothing. It also boasts some of the finest dining in the country. If that is not enough, the beaches are beautiful, the scuba diving is superb and the people are super friendly.

We stayed there for eight days (a long stop when you’re on the travellers’ trail) and in that time we learnt to scuba dive, bought numerous tailor-made clothes, and ate some of the best food we’ve had not just in Vietnam but anywhere in the world.

We started our stay at a basic backpacker hotel but soon realised that for just $5 extra we could bag ourselves a double room in a beautiful hotel with a pool and an extensive buffet breakfast. For the next week we enjoyed that luxury immensely.

We also decided that Hoi An would be the place that we would learn to scuba dive. Since our intro dive at the Great Barrier Reef we had decided that we wanted more and Vietnam was a cheap place to get it.

Our scuba boat

We could have waited until Nha Trang, a scuba mecca further down the coast, but Hoi An just seemed like a less obvious and more interesting place to take a dive course. It also meant we could stay longer in the town.

The course takes three days, where you have to learn and complete various skills on each of the six dives to progress. These include taking off your mask and regulator underwater, breathing from your buddy’s air supply and learning to control your buoyancy so you hover with your legs crossed buddah-style exactly one metre off the sea bed.

I was a little nervous beforehand but I must say that me and Manna literally swam through the course. Manna is a natural in the water anyway courtesy of many summers spent snorkelling in Menorca and to my surprise I found that I was strangely comfortable 18m below the sea. I’m not a particularly good swimmer but the best thing about scuba-diving is you don’t need to be – you just fan your flippers slightly and you’re off.

The dives took place in an area around Cham Island, a one hour boat ride from the Hoi An coast. And each one proved to be pretty special. We were joined on the course by another girl Jennifer, who was equally at ease with the skills, which meant that after we had passed the requirements for each dive we could spend the rest of the time (30-40 mins) admiring the fluorescent fish and the colourful coral.

Led by Alex, our laid-back, Brummie-born instructor, we were taken to some areas that I’m not sure novice divers are supposed to go. In one of those areas, Alex stopped and pointed excitedly in front of him. We pulled up alongside to see what he was looking at. From the depths, suddenly appearing in front of us was an eagle ray. This was one of the most eery sights I’ve ever witnessed, as the eagle ray’s weird face seemed to stare straight in our direction.

Our eagle ray! (or one just like it)

The ray was then gracious enough to move slowly past the four of us so we could all get a good look before it turned, gave us what looked like a nod and then sped off in the distance. It was an amazing sight on only our second open water dive of the course.

After the ray had gone, Alex took out his underwater pad and pen, and wrote “You Lucky Bastards!” Apparently, the eagle ray is a rare sight in these waters even for seasoned divers.

We were also lucky enough to watch as a school of large barracuda (about 200 in all) whisked past our heads at incredible speed, as well as interact with countless clownfish, parrot fish and strange blue starfish. To top it all, after each morning of diving we had lunch on the beautiful Cham Island, followed by an hour’s relaxation on the secluded beach before heading back to the mainland.

Chilling on Cham Island

The course finished with an exam, which the three of us took on the sun deck of the boat on the way back to Hoi An on the third day. We conferred openly on the answers and (surprise, surprise) we all passed. But somehow I got one mark less than the other two.

This was odd given that we each wrote the same answer for every question. After a brief inquest it turned out that the question i got wrong was one showing a picture of a diver underwater with his hand going to his mouth and asking what this is the signal for. The answer, of course, is that you need more air but in the multiple choice I had selected that it means ‘you are hungry’! I think I had food on the brain.

This was highly likely given that the food in Hoi An was so unbelievably good. Not to mention cheap. Hoi An is known for several specialty dishes, particularly White Rose shrimp dumplings. The recipe for these dumplings is secret, held by one family in Hoi An who supplies all the restaurants.

So we went straight to the source – the family-run restaurant that serves only two dishes, White Rose and Fried Wonton. It was 130pm, baking hot in the 35 degree sun and there was a power cut throughout the town. We sat down in the restaurant with no fans and sweated profusely as we waited for our plates. As soon as they arrived all of the discomfort was forgotten. The dumplings were delicate perfection and the fried wonton, covered with a type of sweet and sour sauce, were strong, tasty and provided the perfect accompaniment.

Delicious dumpilings Hoi An style

Our only regret was not having made it back to this restaurant despite a stern promise to do so. But there were just so many other things to do in Hoi An. Mainly, designing our own clothes.

After trawling around the hundreds of tailors in town and after much bargaining in each one, we eventually settled on two. Manna went for a place called Duong Dong Indochine which proved to be an excellent choice as the owner was super friendly and the dresses were cheap (around $35 each) yet perfectly formed. Manna had printed out some designs from the internet and handed them over to be copied. They did a great job, so good in fact that every time we went back for a fitting Manna ordered another item (if we hadn’t left I think she’d still be ordering).

Designers at work

One of the many finished products

I eventually chose Thu Thuy for my suits. This was a slightly more upmarket option, but the fabric and the quality seemed to be well worth it. Even so, buying a three-piece bespoke suit made from the finest silk-cotton for $90 still falls into the bargain category.

My tailor, Van, was also the kind of person you trust immediately. In a country full of hawkers trying to rip off naive tourists she was a breath of fresh air. But my research for my suit was a bit more rudimentary than Manna’s. I picked up a copy of GQ that was in the shop, pointed to the picture of Justin Timberlake dressed in a dapper suit on the cover, and said ‘I want that one’. Three fittings later and I was delighted with the results.

"Why has your belly grown since I last measured you?"

(Half of) the finished product

I will definitely stay in touch with Van for any suit requirements in future. We were especially amused when she revealed that despite her diminutive frame, she’s in fact a Kung Fu master and an expert with the nun-chucks. Luckily I was happy with my suit so i didn’t need to fight her.

Hoi An was also where the World Cup started. As the games were on at 630pm, 9pm and 130am, this would be the start of many late nights of football watching.

The first England match, in the early hours against the US, proved to be particularly epic but not for footballing reasons. We found out from two English guys sitting near us in a restaurant that the whole of Hoi An closes down at midnight and the only way to watch the game is at a beach club 4km out of town. They then offered to meet us at a nearby bar to watch the first game and we could head together to said club after.

Manna, quite reasonably, was exhausted as we had just finished our scuba course the day before, so soon after the English guys turned up she scarpered off to bed. Which left me with them and their newly acquired mates – a Swedish girl from Shanghai with her brother and two young ladies from Holland. They were all drinking heavily and I had little choice but to join in.

By the time we reached the beach club we were well and truly into the spirit of things. The club itself had laid out an array of chairs and tables in front of the big screen with a projector. I don’t remember much of the game (apart from that it was rubbish) but I do remember having a fun night. The six of us chatted and joked as though we’d been friends for five years as opposed to five hours. I staggered out of the club at 5am, forgetting to write down anyone’s contact details and failing to remember any of their names. But I do have a photo to prove that it did happen!

Five-hour friends

I guess this is just another part of the travellers trail. You meet people, have fun with those people, form solid foundations for friendship and promptly never see them again.

We were so sad to leave Hoi An but we will hopefully never forget the place that introduced us to scuba diving, bespoke clothing and the White Rose dumpling.

More Hoi An by night

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2 Responses to “Suits and Scuba”

  1. Gabrielle Says:

    Those dumplings are so amazing. We tried to go back to the source twice but each time we were turned away cos it was full. Stupid tourists eating all my dumplings.

  2. cynthia cutler Says:

    Another fantastic story Marc. Really exciting. Cant wait to see your suit and Manna’s dress. Miss you x

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